Social networking is the most significant business development of 2010, topping the resurgence of the U.S. automobile industry. During the year, social networking morphed from a personal communications tool for young people into a new vehicle that business leaders are using to transform communications with their employees and customers, as it shifts from one-way transmission of information to two-way interaction. That's one reason Time magazine just named Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg Person of the Year.
A year ago, many people poked fun at Facebook as a place where kids shared their latest party news. Today more than 600 million users worldwide are active on the site. The most rapidly growing demographic is people over forty. More than 300 million people spend at least one hour a day on Facebook. Approximately two hundred million people are active on Twitter in spite of — or because of — its 140-character limitation. Another 100 million use LinkedIn. None of these social networks even existed at the beginning of the decade.
Leaders like IBM's Sam Palmisano, PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi, Apple's Steve Jobs, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, Carlson's Marilyn Nelson, and Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria are all active social network users. Why? Because these social networks are a unique way of broadly communicating real-time messages to the audiences they want to reach. They can write a message anywhere, anytime, and share it with interested parties without any public relations meddling, speech writers, airplane travel, canned videos, or voicemail messages. Now their words are much more authentic and can be remarkably empowering.
Social networking is also flattening organizations by distributing access to information. Everyone is equal on the social network. No hierarchies need get involved.
The biggest threat presented by social networks is to middle managers, who may become obsolete when they are no longer needed to convey messages up and down the organization. The key to success in the social networking era is to empower the people who do the actual work — designing products, manufacturing them, creating marketing innovations, or selling services — to step up and lead without a hierarchy.
Consumer marketing companies are lining up to use these networks to reach their tailored demographics with highly personalized messages. Already they are revolutionizing marketing by shifting dollars from purchased media advertisements to building their own outlets and content. Kraft Foods, for example, is now one of the largest publishers of food-related materials. IBM is launching thought leadership communities. PepsiCo uses social networks to reach millions of social entrepreneurs in lieu of advertising at the Super Bowl. From a leadership perspective, social networking is making authentic leadership a reality and a necessity for 21st century leaders. You can't hide on your social network when you're revealing who you are and what you really believe. Transparency is essential here.
Even more important, this new phenomenon is enabling business leaders to regain the trust and credibility they have lost over the last 10 years. That's why social networking is the most important business development of the year.
Bill George is Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School.